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Edwards budget bullying not experiencing payoff

A couple of announcements last week confirmed what my Advocate colleague Stephanie Grace argued as the coming of the “permanent campaign” to Louisiana gubernatorial politics, one of these proffering a surprise that perhaps demonstrates how far its tentacles have reached and what it means going forward.

Grace notes that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ statement – just a bit over six months into a four-year term – that he would run for reelection signals a mindset that state politicians increasingly incorporate campaign optics into the governing strategies they employ and therefore the issue preferences advanced and the methods they used to do that. She speculated that the Republican-led Legislature, particularly the House, and GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, a potential rival to Edwards’ reelection, in the methods they oppose and/or try to upstage Edwards in the pursuit of his agenda, join Edwards in this mode of governance.

However, less well-noticed at about the same time Edwards confirmed the obvious that Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser in a speech insisted he swore off running for governor, thus against Edwards, in 2019. In the first half of the year, Nungesser had coordinated with a leading Republican Party official in an odd, if not far-fetched, scheme to bring business to the state apparently without Edwards’ knowledge, despite that his job description has nothing to do with such efforts. Such a move could be seen as attempting to raise his profile for ascension to the state’s top spot.

That desire, if ever present, now seeming part of the past, Nungesser explained that in tough budgetary times he would rather work with Edwards in order to preserve as much money as possible in his budget, which pays mainly for state tourism and promotion efforts and some for museums and other cultural offerings. In other words, he saw a connection between being on Edwards’ good side and funding for his department. And given what Edwards has planned for Landry, he has every reason to suspect that Edwards will use whatever power he has to play budgetary favorites with officers who ally themselves with him.

For heading into the final week of the special session without yet receiving line item vetoes from Edwards, in a comparison of the operating budget HB 1 for next fiscal year and last year’s existing budget, concerning the departments run by the constitutional officers Nungesser’s took the second-biggest hit – surpassed only by one over twice as large in percentage terms suffered by Landry’s of 18 percent. Keep in mind as well that much of the attorney general’s budget comes from self-generated revenues of some kind beyond budgeters control (fees assessed on the public or other government agencies), so in actual general fund terms the $6.8 million scheduled represents a drop of almost half from that budgeted this year (unadjusted for mid-year cuts).

So clearly Edwards, apparently backed by the Senate that assented to a blueprint not far from his submitted budget that thusly forced the House into acceptance despite the latter trying to make substantial revisions, seeks to punish Landry for a number of actions by him that have opposed Edwards’ leftist agenda. Count that as political hardball, for example, against Landry’s seemingly mooting an Edwards executive order relating to state and local government regarding personnel and contracting that created protected classes based upon their behavioral aspects.

This budgetary treatment raises questions as to whether Edwards in shaping the budget this way really has any compelling policy argument justifying such far-reaching cuts to the Department of Justice, as opposed to this just as a mean-spirited reaction to Landry as a potential threat to his serving another term. But Edwards also must realize, as the House reinforced earlier this week with its refusal to raise taxes close to the level Edwards desired to retain oversized government, that his relative position of electoral weakness means this strategy has limited effectiveness.

Bullying other centers of power in government that results in him winning few policy victories will make Edwards seem less statesmanlike and more political in the eyes of the electorate. A petty politician doesn’t usually win reelection, so perhaps more cooperation that bows to the inevitability of his weak position would improve his chances on that score.

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